California Lays Victim to Rolling Waves of Cynicism

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San Jose Mercury News

Cynicism is rolling across California these days along with the blackouts and big utility bills.

Most Californians don’t doubt they’re in the midst of a real energy crisis. But many contend that electricity shortages are simply the work of power companies seeking higher rates.

“I think a lot of people are getting rich off of other people’s misery,” David Schimmels of Castro Valley said Wednesday as the lights were going off in Northern and central California in the first rolling blackouts linked to deregulation. “Up until last year, there was no such thing as a power shortage. It’s kind of like OPEC and the way gas prices mysteriously rise up.”

Two public opinion polls released Wednesday show that Schimmels is anything but a lone critic. In fact, consumer groups say, growing public opposition could tie the hands of the California Legislature, where Gov. Gray Davis is leading efforts to use taxpayer money to rescue nearly bankrupt utility companies.

“I think there’s a realization that deregulation was hurried through back in 1996, that lawmakers were not as careful as they should have been,” said Michael McCauley, media director for the Consumers Union. “And I think they’re acutely aware that if they don’t get it right this time, they’re very likely to see a ratepayer revolt — ratepayers turning to the ballot to prevent another bailout of the utilities.”

However, according to the latest Field Poll, Californians favor Davis’ plan to have the state purchase electricity for utilities by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Nearly 90 percent of Californians are closely following developments in the electricity crisis, a situation they consider serious, the poll said. A Public Policy Institute of California survey showed a similarly high rate of public interest, reporting that Californians are now as likely to pick electricity problems and deregulation as they are public schools when they name the No. 1 issue facing the state Legislature.

But one of the most remarkable sentiments permeating the Field Poll public was cynicism about the cause of the whole mess, said pollster Mark DiCamillo. Nearly 60 percent say the electricity crunch came from power companies trying to raise rates rather than from short supplies. Nearly three-quarters of Californians also blame the Public Utilities Commission and the failure to build new power plants.

The public also is wary of the power companies’ proposed solutions. About 60 percent of Californians say it’s more important to maintain air quality standards than to suspend them in order to generate more electricity — something several key electricity suppliers insisted they needed last week.

“They say ‘keep the air quality standards’ because they’re not sold on the fact that the state has a supply-and-demand kind of shortage,” DiCamillo said.

Half of Californians oppose using government bonds to bail out ailing utilities Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, according to the Field Poll. Forty percent support the move.

“I think it’s PG&E‘s fault for not having good management in the way the electricity should have been distributed and how the money should have been spent,” said Nancy Lai of Chino Hills, who was shopping at the Great Mall in Milpitas Wednesday. “We’re paying because we use electricity and we have no choice. But it’s their wrongdoing.”

Charles Bailey of San Jose agreed.

“I don’t understand why we have to pay for their mistakes,” he said.

Some predict the public will only become more cynical as bills carrying the PUC‘s most recent rate hike begin to land in their mail boxes.

“We’ve already been through this. Wait until your power bills triple,” said David Bono of San Diego, where deregulation took effect in 1999. But Bono said it’s not all the work of power companies.

“It’s all these environmental tree-huggers,” he said. “If you want this great economy, you’ve got to build things to support it, and overall we haven’t done a lot. And we’re against nuclear power and every kind of power. At some point, you’re going to hit a wall.”

“I think we hit it,” said Kevin Venable, also of San Diego.

While C.J. O’Brien of San Jose agrees that growth is a major culprit in the energy shortage, he can’t help but wonder about what he reads in the newspapers.

“I think it’s rather interesting that PG&E, the utility, is going bankrupt. But PG&E, the parent company, is flush with cash,” he said.

Pollsters and consumer groups aren’t surprised that the public, often labeled as uninformed and apathetic, is following the crisis in such detail.

“I’m never surprised when the public gets it,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “We should be concerned when we don’t get it.”

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